Discussion on the purpose of education in society

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Writing in the campus literary journal of Morehouse College, the Maroon Tiger, in January 1947, a young and precocious student by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. asserted that education possesses both utilitarian and moral functions, with character and moral development being vital in bequeathing the critical intellect with humane purposes. [King, 1947] In what was to become a famous article titled 'The Purpose of Education', he argued for education to inculcate morals and character besides training one for quick, resolute, and effective thinking, as "the most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals". [King, 1947, para. 4]

Twenty one years would pass before this same youth, now an iconic figure for the advancement of African-American civil rights, was assassinated on April 4, 1968, under circumstances still shrouded in controversy. Education itself has made tremendous strides since Dr King's time. Not long after 'The Purpose of Education' was published, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [United Nations, 1948] promulgated by the United Nations (UN) on December 10, 1948, sought to enshrine education as a basic human right, free and compulsory at the fundamental stages, and equally accessible to all at the higher levels on the basis of merit. More importantly, it goes on to state that "education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms… and shall (thus) further the activities of the United Nations for peace". [United Nations, 1948, Article 26, para. 2]

A common theme thus characterises these aspirations for the role of education: an especial emphasis on civic consciousness and the inculcation of moral values. Although Singapore possesses an overall high literacy rate of 96.3% (among residents aged 15 and over) [Singapore Department of Statistics, 2009], one in five adults in the world today is still not literate, with some 796 million adults lacking minimum literacy skills. [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2010] The English author H.G. Wells [1922] was therefore not exaggerating in the least when he wrote in his 'Outline of History' that "human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe". [p. 135] An urgent need exists, to close the gaps and remove the tremendous inequalities that exist in access to basic education and opportunities. 'Why is this important?' is a key question which one shall attempt to address as this essay traces the path of education reform and modernisation in the local context with the ultimate aim of understanding the fundamental purpose of education in human society.

In one's opinion, a student's thoughts and beliefs are shaped to a definite extent by the knowledge he acquires, and certain qualities of mind with flexibility of thought and powers of imagination are required of individuals in a fiercely competitive international landscape to provide that thrust with which societies are kept dynamic and hotbeds of intellectual discourse. Globalisation and the ever-changing demands of the job market also require, more than ever, a differentiated and flexible workforce to take advantage of the varied economic opportunities that abound in a world increasingly interconnected by technological advances in communications and transport.

The economic value of education to societies and individuals is therefore readily recognisable as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen [2003] observed at a speech to the Commonwealth education conference in Edinburgh:

Not surprisingly, all the cases of speedy use of the opportunities of global commerce for the reduction of poverty have drawn on help from basic education on a wide basis. For example, in Japan, already in the mid-19th century the task was seen with remarkable clarity. The Fundamental Code of Education, issued in 1872 (shortly after the Meiji restoration in 1868), expressed the public commitment to make sure that there must be "no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person". Thus - with the closing of educational gaps - began Japan's remarkable history of rapid economic development. By 1910 Japan was almost fully literate, at least for the young, and by 1913, though still very much poorer than Britain or America, Japan was publishing more books than Britain and more than twice as many as the United States. The concentration on education determined, to a large extent, the nature and speed of Japan's economic and social progress. [para. 12]

Later on, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other economies in East Asia followed similar routes and firmly focused on general expansion of education. Widespread participation in a global economy would have been hard to accomplish if people could not read or write, or produce according to specifications or instructions, or to have quality control. [para. 13]

A well-rounded and holistic education is also crucial for eliminating ignorance and expanding the horizon of human thought. Such an education functions as the yeast with which human society is raised, and cannot be anything but central to the theme of achieving peace in the world. Education must aim to be free of traditional religious and ideological constraints which reduce rather than expand man's perception of society and his world. William Shakespeare [n.d.], in his play 'Twelfth Night', mentioned that "some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." [Act II, Scene V] In the schooling of children, we have a duty to ensure that mediocrity and a circumscribed world view is not thrust upon the young. [Sen, 2003]

Given the social obligation to provide all children with the opportunity of schooling, the purpose of education in society is twofold. First, the achieving of economic growth and a higher standard of living for all in society through the transmission of relevant knowledge and technical skills required by the economy, and second, the fundamental empowerment of individuals with values and attitudes essential for the achieving of desired socio-moral outcomes such as a strong work ethic, respect for others, and civic engagement.

With political and economic survival being of vital importance to Singapore when she first gained independence in 1965, the government sought to embark on an export-oriented industrialisation strategy to promote economic growth and resolve the rising unemployment rate which stood at a high of 8.9% in 1966. [Hoon & Kee, 1998] The purpose of education in Singapore's early years was therefore focused on survival and the training of a literate and technically-competent workforce to support the industrialisation effort. Right from 1965 onwards, education and economic development were closely interlinked with due attention given to the instilling of a national identity in the young students of the newly-independent nation. Bilingualism was introduced and made compulsory with the learning of English language and a mother-tongue. This unique policy aimed not only to shore up Singapore's competence in the main language of international commerce, but also to ensure that Singaporeans did not lose their cultural roots.

By the mid-1970s, Singapore enjoyed full employment. (Tan, 1996) The theme of the survival-oriented education system shifted to that of an efficiency-based and ability-driven education (see Diagram 1) premised on the maximal development of differing talents and abilities in every child [Gopinathan & Goh, 2008], in contrast with the 'one-size-fits-all' approach to student progression in the 1960s. Values education assumed added importance with schools often being called upon to develop in students "desirable qualities such as those of national consciousness, honesty, tolerance, understanding, self-reliance, adaptability, and social responsibility". [Ministry of Education, 2007, Building a Nation] The government also sought to minimise educational wastage by introducing greater flexibility and choice in the range of educational institutions catering to different strengths and interests. The National University of Singapore (NUS) High School of Mathematics and Science, the Singapore Sports School, and the School of the Arts, are but a few of the prominent examples that come to mind.

Diagram1http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/files/images/edu-landscape.jpg Source: Ministry of Education, 2008

A major driving force of this system has been the strong emphasis on meritocracy which purports to "recognise and reward everyone who works hard and excels… within a unified national education system (that) provides equal opportunities for each student to learn and to achieve his or her potential". [] One therefore identifies bilingualism and meritocracy as key cornerstones of our education system which should be given due attention as policies that have shaped Singapore society to a large extent.

In discussing Mother Tongue Language, then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew wrote in 1979 that:

"The greatest value in the teaching and learning of Chinese is in the transmission of the norms of social or moral behavior… It would be a tragedy if we were to miss this and concentrate on second language proficiency nearly equal to the first language. Malay children should know their proverbs and their folklore… For the Indians, the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha provide

marvellous and inexhaustible sources of stories… That they also carry a moral message is the genius of the culture. No child should leave school after 9 years without having the "soft-ware" of his culture programmed into his subconscious."

The first policy planners of bilingualism however, failed to take into account the different aptitudes of students for mastering two languages, and the extent to which those who could not cope were disadvantaged. The literacy rate, in terms of English Language proficiency, was poor with an average pass rate of just 40% at the GCE Ordinary-Level examinations in the 1970s, despite the national literacy rate having increased from 72.7% in 1970 to 77.6% in 1978.

The solution was the introduction of a differentiated system of bilingual education catering for students possessing different aptitudes for the learning of languages. The exceptionally able were given the opportunity of pursuing a Third Language (either French, Japanese, German, Malay (for non-Malays), and Chinese (for non-Chinese). Students proficient in their Mother Tongue were also encouraged to pursue it at Higher level. At the same time, a simpler syllabus was introduced to cater to those who were unable to cope.

Today, bilingualism remains a key tool for retaining the individual's links with his cultural origins, keeping one firmly anchored amidst the tidal waves of globalisation and societal change, and for "inculcating in the individual an awareness of the necessity of moral and traditional values so that he will grow up to be a responsible adult, conscious of his obligations to himself, his family, his neighbours and his nation".

With regards to meritocracy, proponents argue that it grants equal opportunities for all to learn, achieve, and excel within the system, and in so doing, rewards those who work hard and excel. This concept also upholds the multiracial model of Singapore society by allowing everyone to advance solely on the basis of merit and achievement regardless of race.

However, a meritocratic society does not translate into a classless society. Equal opportunity is not synonymous with equal outcomes, and rewarding by merit would assume unequal resources and rewards. At the same time, humans are not equally endowed in terms of motivation, ability, and access to opportunities. Therefore, meritocracy cannot and does not result in an equalisation of lifestyles and life-chances across the different segments of a populace although equalisation of opportunities serves to reduce the inherent inequalities. Furthermore, as a good education becomes increasingly important in the global economy with meritocracy and 'talentocracy' being continually emphasised, well-off and successful parents would seek to provide their children with the best education that money can buy. Socially and economically dysfunctional families characterised by parental neglect and limited means are however, unlikely to provide their children with the same extent of nurture and opportunities.

It should also be noted that meritocracy has not succeeded in closing the achievement gaps that exist among the different races in Singapore. As a general rule, the majority Chinese consistently perform better overall than the Indian and the Malay minority group, as evidenced by the relatively high percentage of Chinese students passing national examinations and progressing on to post-secondary educational institutions as compared to the percentage of Indians and Malays. (See Diagrams 2-5)

The Ministry of Education recognises the inherent inequity of the meritocratic system and has thus invested not only in top schools and universities, but also in all neighbourhood schools, institutes of technical education, and the polytechnics. It is noteworthy that budget allocations for education expenditure have risen, even in the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis, to a total of S$9.7b in the Financial Year (FY) 2010, an 11% increase from S$8.7b in FY2009. As a policy, meritocracy seeks to identify and reward all who possess the potential to lead and instill society with the necessary inspiration and drive for success. In this respect, it is based upon the pragmatic recognition that not everyone is of equal abilities and talents, and that societal progress on merit should assume precedence over egalitarian notions of equality.

To this end, the curriculum in Singapore education has sought to develop a responsive educational structure, marking a shift in strategic paradigm encapsulated in the vision 'Thinking Schools, Learning Nation' (TSLN). As in past decades, the policy objectives behind this new system are clearly instrumental in nature, based on fulfilling the needs of society and the economy, "with a heavy emphasis on school-based socialisation to build loyalty to the new state and manpower-oriented curriculum policies to ensure that school learners have the skills to meet labour market needs".

Globalisation, powered by rapid technological advances, has resulted in a new knowledge-based global economy. The survival of a nation within the global economy will depend increasingly on the ability of its citizens to enhance their skills and market them in the global market. In addition, the possession of a highly-skilled and flexible labour force will play

Diagram 2

Diagram 3

Diagram 4

Diagram 5

an important role in continuing to attract foreign capital and direct investment to Singapore. The transition towards such a knowledge-based economy in Singapore has shifted educational emphasis away from the technical needs of manufacturing towards the inculcation of creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit. Skill-sets and employability do not remain relevant for long, and job security is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. These economic trends have required the Singapore educational system to revamp and realign itself.

To achieve the holistic development of the individual potential, schools have been given leeway to take ownership of their curriculum and co-curricular activities, the better to identify and nurture varied talents and abilities in different students with. Customised programmes such as the Music and Art Elective Programmes, Gifted Education Programme, and specially-designed physical education classes have also been introduced to cater to the aptitudes and skills of different students.

Under the first IT Master Plan of 1997, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) was integrated into the "thinking curriculum" as part of TSLN with the aim of motivating students to be creative and independent learners. S$2b was set aside to introduce ICT into the schools and to have pupils spend 30% of curriculum time learning with, or through, computers for the period 1997-2002. The development and deployment of ICT in Singapore schools is set to continue, making student-centred learning and assessment possible whilst attaining the objectives of ability-driven education and TSLN.

Closely interlinked with the ability-driven education system are the professional development of teachers and pedagogical methods in Singapore. To achieve a "quantum improvement" in Singapore's whole process of education, the Grow 2.0 package was introduced which revamped career paths for teachers and enhanced career structures to bring forth and reward high performance.

At the teacher-training level, Singapore is perhaps one of the few countries in the world to provide a generous employment package for retaining teachers and maintaining a high-quality teaching force. Besides good remuneration and the introduction of a "Connect Plan" as monetary rewards, leaders and teachers are encouraged to go on sabbatical leave in the spirit of lifelong learning to pick up new knowledge and skills, not necessarily in an educational setting, but through work exposure in other sectors, such as the hospitality industry, where cross-sector knowledge acquired could plausibly prove useful in the development of new teaching methods and best practices. All these initiatives have had the effect of instilling a sense of pride in teaching as a career and professionalising the education service. Further development of a professional community of educators is set to continue with the launch of the Academy of Singapore Teachers, which "aims to foster a culture of professional excellence within the teaching fraternity, characterised by strong pedagogical leadership and teacher ownership of professional development".

In conclusion, having determined the purpose of education in society to be the achievement of desired economic and socio-moral outcomes through the inculcation of values and maximal development of talents and abilities in every individual, the pragmatic approach of the government towards policy formulation and implementation has invariably resulted in an efficient education system consistently in sync with the country's economic objectives to maintain sustainable growth. We in Singapore have been fortunate that the political leadership since independence has proved equal to the challenge of establishing a politically stable environment in which economic growth and educational gains can proceed unimpeded, with equal opportunities of access available to all without discrimination. The inculcation of desirable values and attitudes in the young has not been neglected either with strong emphasis on good morals and the need to be useful and functioning members of society.

Education in Singapore was, and still is, seen as a stepping stone to a secure livelihood and high standards of living, thanks in large part to the policy of meritocracy. At the fundamental level, Singapore's manpower is its only resource, and a robust education system has provided us with the underlying fundamentals necessary for sustaining its competitiveness and growth in a rapidly-changing social and economic landscape. The challenges ahead for 21st century education in Singapore, therefore, would be the continued professionalisation of the teaching service, with added emphasis on constant updating of the curriculum to inculcate values such as a spirit of enterprise and confidence so critical to success in the new age to come.